Steamed fish is the first dish I learned how to cook. My mother showed me how to season the fish, determine how long to steam it and how to sizzle the aromatics with hot oil.
Steamed fish is a delicious, easy recipe to have in your repertoire, and once you know the basic technique, you can vary the seasonings. Try steaming the fish with kaffir lime leaves, sliced chillies, garlic and lemongrass for a Thai-style dish; with fermented black beans, fine slivers of dried tangerine peel and thin slices of salted pork fat for a heartier Cantonese version; or fermented black beans, dried chillies and toasted Sichuan peppercorns for a Sichuan flavour.
Steamed fish with ginger, spring onion and coriander
Buy the freshest fish you can find in the market, preferably one that’s still swimming in the tank. Have the fish vendor kill it, scale and gut it. Make sure the fish is small enough that it fits into your steamer, and that you have a dish large enough to cook the fish on.
1 fresh fish, about 500 grams
About 5ml rice wine or brandy
20 grams peeled fresh ginger
45ml light soy sauce
10 grams granulated sugar
About 30 grams spring onions
About 15 grams fresh coriander leaves
45ml cooking oil
Fine sea salt
1 Check the fish for scales by running your fingers along the skin, starting at the tail and going toward the head; if you feel any scales, remove them. Rinse the fish inside and out, checking the cavity to make sure all the guts have been removed. Dry the fish inside and out with paper towels. Lay it flat on a cutting board. Hold a ruler standing upright against the cutting board and measure the fish at its thickest point.
2 Rub the rice wine or brandy into the cavity of the fish and place it on the steaming dish. Sprinkle some salt into the cavity. Cut the ginger into fine julienne and place about half of the shreds into the cavity, and the remaining shreds over the fish.
3 Pour water to a depth of about 3cm into a wok and place it over a high flame. When the water boils, put a metal rack with low feet in the wok, and place the dish holding the fish on the rack. Put the lid on the wok and as soon as you can see a lot of steam coming out from under the lid, lower the heat and start timing: cook the fish over medium-low steam for 10 minutes for every 2.5cm of thickness.
4 While the fish is steaming, prepare the aromatics, soy sauce and oil. Slice the spring onions lengthwise into fine shreds, then cut the shreds into 6cm lengths. Mix the soy sauce with the sugar and stir until dissolved. Heat the oil in a small pan until it’s very hot.
5 As soon as the fish is cooked, remove it from the steamer and carefully tip the dish to pour off most of the steaming liquid. Pour the soy sauce/sugar mixture over the fish, then pile the spring onion and coriander leaves on top. Pour the hot oil over the fish: it will sizzle and wilt the aromatics. Serve immediately.
Steamed pomfret with Thai flavours
1 pomfret, about 400 grams, cleaned and scaled
2 lemongrass stalks
2 garlic cloves
1-2 red bird’s-eye chillies
2 kaffir lime leaves
45ml fish sauce
About 50ml fresh lime juice
25 grams palm sugar
Fine sea salt
Thinly sliced lime, for garnishing
1 Check the fish for scales and rinse it inside and out, as in the first recipe. Dry the fish inside and out with paper towels, then put it on a heatproof dish. Sprinkle a little salt into the cavity of the fish.
2 Cut off the lower 10cm of the lemongrass stalks (you can use the top of the stalks for lemongrass tea). Use the side of a cleaver or a meat mallet to lightly crush the lemongrass stalks along their entire length, then place them in the cavity of the fish. Thinly slice the garlic. Cut the chillies in half lengthwise and scrape out and discard the seeds. Finely mince the chillies. Cut the lime leaves into fine chiffonade. Place about one-third of the garlic, chillies and lime leaves into the cavity of the fish, and scatter the remainder over and around the fish.
3 If the palm sugar is very hard, microwave it briefly until melted. Mix the sugar with the fish sauce and lime juice.
4 Steam the fish as in the first recipe, using the guideline of cooking it for 10 minutes for every 2.5cm of thickness. When the fish is cooked, pour off the steaming liquid that’s accumulated in the dish. Pour the fish sauce/lime juice/sugar mixture over the fish, then garnish with lime slices before serving.